Britney Spears shows that celebrity wild child rehabilitations are conditional
Drew Barrymore crying over a window, Britney Spears exploring the world after a 13-year conservatorship, Paris Hilton finally finding love. We can’t get enough of watching ex-wild childs find joy again. But does their redemption arc come at a price?
Working at seven months-old, drinking at seven, a nightclub regular at eight, an alcoholic at 11, in rehab at 12, formally emancipated from her parents at 14, a Hollywood pariah living in a mouldy apartment and cleaning toilets at 16. There aren’t many women in America who have had a more tumultuous childhood than Drew Barrymore.
Perhaps this is why her recent TikTok went viral. It begins with Barrymore, now 47, gazing out of a window saying, “It’s so hopeful… Where something could be so covered up and dark, you can pry it open and create light”. She’s just discovered that her apartment’s previous owners covered up a window with drywall and is on a mission to unearth it. As Barrymore and the renovation team tear away the plaster to reveal that small, dusty window, she’s beside herself with excitement. By the end of it, she’s jumping, manically laughing, even howling like a dog, before finally bursting into tears, sobbing. “I knew there was a window here! I knew it.”
These hyper-emotions might seem excessive – there’s something disconcerting about watching a woman more than twice your age behaving like she’s less than half your age. But watching the video, you can’t help but feel proud of her, pleased that she’s finally found peace. “I love how she can still find joy in the little things,” reads one comment on the video that’s now been viewed more than 5 million times. “Inner child healing goes a long way,” says another.
Barrymore is not the only woman in Hollywood whose redemption arc has captivated social media scrollers. As we repent for the age of omnipresent paparazzi and publicised breakdowns, a new figure is emerging in the celebrity landscape: the rehabilitated wild child.
Take Britney Spears, for example. In 2008, she was deemed so wild that she was placed in a now-infamous conservatorship. Now that, for the first time in almost 14 years, Spears is able to enjoy things that most of us would take for granted (going to a restaurant, choosing what to wear, even leaving the house), her Insta captures the pop star’s pure excitement for the everyday – and people can’t get enough of it. During the #FreeBritney campaign, many fans argued that her erratic and low-budget posts were proof that she was under her father’s control. But since her 13-year conservatorship ended last autumn, her feed hasn’t changed much. Yes, it shows her trips to Maui and her recent wedding, but those grainy photos of her trying on clothes, cryptic, lengthy captions and trite expressions that you might see in a “Live, Laugh, Love” enthusiast’s house are still there.
“I think it’s all a way for her to communicate what’s going on in her mind, like an open therapy session,” Professor Jen Otter Bickerdike, the author of Being Britney: Pieces of a Modern Icon, tells THE FACE. “This woman has been in a conservatorship from when she was 27 until she was almost 40. That period of a person’s life is hugely important – it’s when you decide what you want to build your life around and work out who you are. I imagine that what we’re seeing now is Britney working out who she is.” Watching this in real time as a fan, or even a casual observer, is incredibly endearing.
Wild child rehabilitation methods vary between women. For Winona Ryder, it was principally nostalgia culture which threw her a rope to bring her back on our screens. Once the ‘80s it-girl, she was ejected from Hollywood after a shoplifting and drug scandal, and when she did return to work, she was seen as a relic from the ’80s. But in 2016, it was that very association with the past which allowed Ryder to be fully rehabilitated into show business with her acclaimed performance in Netflix’s ’80s nostalgia series, Stranger Things.
It seems that our nostalgia for, well, everything is also offering Lindsay Lohan a similar shot at redemption: after her lengthy exile to the Mediterranean, she’s now sealed a three-movie deal with Netflix. Then there’s Angelina Jolie, who went from being the other woman incarnate to the face of the United Nations, a serial adopter and mother of six. Or Kate Moss, who’s made it through by being, for lack of a better word, a bit boring. In her recent Desert Island Discs interview, when asked how she spends her days in her Cotswolds home, Moss proclaimed that she “bloody loves gardening”. More yummy mummy than heroin chic. Most tragically, some find public redemption in death. Amy Winehouse’s life and genius have been treated with far more respect since she died 11 years ago than they ever were while she was alive.
These are women who, after being demonised by the industry, have now been welcomed back into the celebrity fold. Perhaps this is unsurprising: there will always be an appetite for thin, beautiful white women – forgiveness is far less forthcoming for women who don’t fit these characteristics. Part of this rehabilitation is also simply a result of time passing. With each year there is further separation between the present day and their most humiliating low. Equally, with each passing year, the peak of their stardom is increasingly subject to romanticisation.
As we look into an increasingly bleak future, our simmering nostalgia culture has accelerated. We reach for the likes of Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Winona Ryder in the same way a child might revert to a discarded Barbie in times of distress – things are looking rough, so let’s pretend it’s 2002 again. But these women were not cryogenically frozen to defrost when we want to play with them again, low-rise jeans and all. They are at least 20 years older, usually dealing with the psychological scars from when they were last thrown away by celebrity culture. Some do so in a way that we find appropriate: Drew Barrymore’s so-called inner child work, Paris Hilton campaigning against abusive youth care facilities. Others, less so.
Riding the wave of the #FreeBritney movement and our noughties nostalgia, Spears is currently enjoying more support than ever. But with renewed attention comes scrutiny. Along with the trips abroad and photos of her recent marriage, a new addition to her Instagram feed is a regular stream of near near-naked photos and the comments beneath them are an uncanny echo of the judgemental tabloid columns of the past: “Wow, feeling sad for you… With all the talent and beauty you have, this is what you have left?” or “The saddest display and her ‘husband’ doesn’t help her.”
It seems that Britney’s rehabilitation is conditional. Her ex-husband Kevin Federline and father of her two teenage sons has said as much. In an upcoming interview with ITV (to be aired next week), he expresses concern that their sons may be teased at school for their mother’s bikini photos. The implication which follows this very public hand-wringing is that the whole of society must bend to what a 17-year-old bully deems appropriate. It’s also worth noting that, among literally thousands of other photos of Spears topless or wearing bikinis, she appeared nude while pregnant with one of her sons on the cover of Vanity Fair in 2006, and in a bra and tiny pyjama shorts on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine when she herself was 17. It seems questionable that now, at 40 years old, it’s no longer appropriate for her to publish similar photos on her own Instagram account. As Britney put it in a lengthy notes app screenshot: “During my conservatorship I was controlled for 15 years… I needed permission to take Tylenol !!! I should embark on doing WAAAY more than going topless on the beach like a baby !!!”.
As we endure our extended hangover from the unbridled misogyny of the 2000s and look on the wild childs of the era with a kinder eye, it’s worth examining why they are now deemed acceptable after years of mockery dressed as condescending concern. Is our forgiveness really a way for us to square how cruelly we treated them in the past, or does this rehabilitation come at a price? Free Britney, but only if she acts how we want her to.
Rather than rehabilitation, these women often seem to be on probation. The line of respectability has shifted slightly in their favour, but it’s still there to trip them up. The industry always gets bored of its favourite toys.